December 2, 2021

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Facebook Acknowledges Instagram’s Damage To Teen Mental Health, But Says There’s Good Stuff Too

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Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal published a report stating that Facebook’s own in-house research revealed Instagram has a significant negative impact on teenagers’ mental health. Now Facebook has responded, basically saying it’s a matter of interpretation.

In a blog post published on Sunday afternoon, the social media giant claimed The Wall Street Journal‘s Sept. 14 article had mischaracterised Facebook’s research, as well as left out important context.

“Suggesting that Instagram is toxic for teens is simply not backed up by the facts,” wrote Facebook researcher Pratiti Raychoudhury.

On the face of it, the facts certainly look damning. The Wall Street Journal viewed several internal Facebook documents discussing the issue of teen mental health, the company having performed various focus groups and surveys between 2019 and 2021. Among the documents cited was a 2019 presentation on Instagram, which stated, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

However, Facebook alleges that in context this simply meant Instagram makes body image issues worse for girls who already have such issues, not one in three teen girls overall. This still isn’t great by any means, but at least it isn’t as bad as it could have been.

“And, among those same girls who said they were struggling with body image issues, 22% said that using Instagram made them feel better about their body image issues and 45.5% said that Instagram didn’t make it either better or worse (no impact),” wrote Raychoudhury.

Of course, Facebook doesn’t state what percentage of teenage girls it surveyed self-reported having body image issues, which seems like a relevant bit of info. One in three of 30 percent is a much different statistic to one in three of 90 percent.

Facebook was unable to provide Mashable with this information when reached for comment, but a spokesperson stated not all surveyed girls who reported body image issues were asked about Instagram’s impact.

Still, as the slide shared by Facebook indicates, more surveyed teen girls with body image issues thought Instagram made this problem worse than better. But Facebook also noted that Instagram was good at other things, with surveyed teens stating Instagram made other issues such as “sadness” better in situations where they had “felt sadness in the past month.”

“Body image was the only area where teen girls who reported struggling with the issue said Instagram made it worse as compared to the other 11 areas,” wrote Raychoudhury. “Our internal research is part of our effort to minimize the bad on our platforms and maximize the good. We invest in this research to proactively identify where we can improve — which is why the worst possible results are highlighted in the internal slides.”

Facebook further addressed The Wall Street Journal‘s concerning revelation that the company’s research found 6 percent of American and 13 percent of British teens who reported suicidal thoughts traced their origins to Instagram.

“When we take a step back and look at the full data set, about 1% of the entire group of teens who took the survey said they had suicidal thoughts that they felt started on Instagram,” said Raychoudhury.

According to Facebook, 1296 American and 1309 British teens participated in the relevant survey, which means around 26 reported that their suicidal thoughts began on Instagram. The company acknowledged that any number above zero is not good, but also claimed 38 percent of surveyed teenage girls who experience suicidal thoughts stated Instagram makes the problem better for them.

Facebook’s general defence to all of The Wall Street Journal‘s revelations basically boiled down to the good outweighing the bad, with more surveyed teens considering Instagram’s impact to be positive than negative. The company also stressed that, in addition to contextual considerations of the data, their research itself should be put into context.

“This research, some of which relied on input from only 40 teens, was designed to inform internal conversations about teens’ most negative perceptions of Instagram,” wrote Raychoudhury. “These documents were also created for and used by people who understood the limitations of the research, which is why they occasionally used shorthand language, particularly in the headlines, and do not explain the caveats on every slide.”

Facebook characterised its research as evidence the company is taking steps to tackle Instagram’s problems, citing steps it’s undertaken such as providing links to eating disorder hotlines, banning graphic images of self harm, and allowing users to limit interaction from non-followers.

“We have a long track record of using our research…to inform changes to our apps and provide resources for the people who use them,” wrote Raychoudhury.

Sadly, implementation of said changes has historically been slow. Instagram only announced it would start linking to eating disorder hotlines in February this year, after being in operation for over a decade and knowing of the issue for almost as long. Facebook also has a history of downplaying or ignoring the potentially negative influences of its services — it is a trillion-dollar company, after all. But at least it’s something, I guess.

If you feel like you’d like to talk to someone about your eating behavior, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline at 800-931-2237. You can also text “NEDA” to 741-741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line or visit the nonprofit’s website for more information.

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.

UPDATE: Sept. 27, 2021, 5 p.m. AEST This article has been updated to include Facebook’s comment.



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